If you’re the parent of a teenager that is starting college in the next few weeks then you know how expensive a degree can be. From tuition and books to housing and more, the cost for four years at a public institution can easily top $100,000, so you may be asking yourself, is college worth the expense? There was a time where this question was answered with a resounding ‘Yes!’ but in this day and age, where teens are selling startups for millions of dollars, the answer isn’t so clear.

Michael Crow, president of the nation’s largest public university and my alma mater, Arizona State University, shared his thoughts on the value of a college education with Money Magazine. When asked if we are pushing kids to college, Crow responded: 

“Everybody's not being pushed to college. First, we have to get everybody through high school, and we can't even do that yet. If we could get 40% of the high school grad population up to some level of technical training, that would be fantastic. And then maybe get 40% to the university level. That's what we need based on the job profiles of the future. Everybody doesn't need to go to college. We do need a broad set of career paths.”

Overall, Crow feels that college is worth the expense and he’s talking about actually enrolling in college, not participating in a free online course. Crow acknowledges that online courses are “powerful for enhancing what we do and lowering costs. But we won't have students sitting at home watching Princeton professors talk on their laptops. That's not an education. There's a science-fiction world where rich kids and brilliant kids actually interact with people called professors, and everybody else just learns from a computer. That would be a social disaster.”

I agree with Crow, free online courses are a great way to learn more about a specific topic, they just can’t compete with an actual college education. I received my Bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Writing and Technical Communication from Arizona State University in 2010, nearly 20 years after I graduated from high school. For me, my decision to return to college was more about reaching a goal that I set for myself as well as providing a good example for my children than it was about the potential bump in income I could realize as a degreed professional. 

I’ve also completed several online courses and webinars and these were also valuable – I gained new skills or a better understanding of a topic, but the big difference is that I didn’t feel the same sense of accomplishment at the end of the course that I did while walking across the stage to accept my degree.

The two types of education also look a lot different on paper. Put yourself into a human resource manager’s shoes – do you give equal weight to a completed college degree and a completed online course? I know that I wouldn’t. When you look at job listings, you see requirements for a bachelor’s degree but you don’t see requirements to complete a free online course from Princeton. So yes, there is more value to a college degree but a college education isn’t for everyone. 

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